The past decade has been one of great change in the NFL. Quarterback play and passing offenses have come to define the league, while defenses have gotten smaller and fast to adjust to this new style of play. Some players have spanned this philosophical gap, however, dominating the decade from beginning to end.
With the 2010s in the rearview, ESPN writers have named the player of the decade for each NFL team and well as an entire all-decade team for each division. For the Falcons, there were two clear candidates, but it was wide receiver Julio Jones who ultimately got the nod over quarterback Matt Ryan, the honorable mention for Falcons beat writer Vaughn McClure.
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"Jones, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, has been a consistent high-level performer and unstoppable force," McClure writes. "Jones, 31, has recorded six straight seasons of at least 80 catches and 1,300 receiving yards. His current career average of 96.2 receiving yards per game is the best such mark in NFL history. The seven-time Pro Bowler has 797 career catches on 1,258 targets for 12,125 receiving yards and 57 touchdowns. Jones has 4,019 career yards after the catch. 'He's probably the overall best receiver in the NFL, as far as size and speed and being able to catch the ball and go and getting it vertical,' cornerback Joe Haden once said of Jones. The best part of it all is that Jones puts up those numbers despite often drawing added coverage, which opens up opportunities for his teammates to win their one-on-one matchups."
Surprisingly, Jones was the only Falcons offensive player to make ESPN's NFC South all-decade team. Atlanta did have two defensive make the cut, though, with cornerback Desmond Trufant and safety William Moore earning spots. Kicker returner Devin Hester and kicker Matt Bryant were also selected for spots on special teams.
To see the entirety of ESPN's NFC South all-decade team as well as McClure's thoughts on Ryan as Atlanta's honorable mention, click here.
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NFL.com: Rankings NFL divisions by QBs
With the addition of Tom Brady, the NFC South is now home to three of the best quarterbacks of the last decade-plus. Matt Ryan and Drew Brees have long had some iconic clashes in one of the league's top rivalries, and it will be exciting to see how Brady factors into the division mix with a really good Tampa Bay team behind him.
NFL.com columnist Adam Schein also views the NFC South as the top quarterback division in the league, and he doesn't think it's particularly close. He lays out his case for each quarterback's situation, which is too long to put here in its entirety, but here's what he has to say about Ryan and the Falcons:
"Although Ryan has a league MVP under his belt, the Falcons QB inexplicably remains underrated. Guy's a stud, still squarely in the prime of a Hall of Fame-caliber career. With the dynamic duo of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley out wide, Ryan will enjoy another season of domination."
The Falcons went 4-2 against NFC South teams in 2019, and they will need to have similar success this year if they hope to achieve their goal of reaching the postseason for the third time under Dan Quinn. With late-season games against the Buccaneers and Saints, the Falcons will need to be peaking at the right time ahead of matchups with two of the best quarterbacks in the league.
To see the rest of Schein's thoughts on the NFC South and his full division rankings, click here.
PFF.com: PFF's one-year wonder team
Vic Beasley's 2016 for the Atlanta Falcons seemed to signal his arrival as one of the top young edge rushers in the NFL. Four years later, it now stands as an outlier for a player who was allowed to leave Atlanta on the open market. In looking back at some of the one-year wonders since 2006, Pro Football Focus writer Ben Linsey didn't have a hard time naming Beasley at one of the edge spots.
"Beasley also cashed in on a new contract this offseason, and part of that check stems from a 2016 season where he led the NFL in sacks. Beasley's 79.9 pass-rushing grade in 2016 indicates he probably didn't deserve to lead the NFL in sacks, but it was a strong showing as a pass-rusher nonetheless. His career looked to be on an upward trend. The last three seasons haven't come close to reaching those heights, though. Eighty-eight edge defenders have 500 or more pass-rushing snaps since 2017. Beasley's pressure rate of 8.9% ranks 75th among that group. That number doesn't match up with the guy who led the league in sacks four seasons ago."
To see the rest of Linsey's one-year wonder team, click here.
CBSSports.com: The best pick at each draft spot
Nothing can change the course of a franchise quite like nailing a draft pick. Given the cost effectiveness and ability to keep a player under contract during the prime of his career, teams who draft well often have a leg up on the rest of the league.
As the dog days of summer continue, CBSSports.com writer Josh Edwards took a look at which player was the best pick at every single spot in the draft over the last 50 years. While it's important to hit on any pick in the draft, it's even more important to draft the correct player with one of the highest picks. The Falcons did just that in 1989 when they drafted Deion Sanders, one of the most popular players in franchise and league history.
"It was essentially a coin toss between LaDainian Tomlinson and Sanders," Edwards said of the choice at No. 5. "It is more complicated attempting to quantify Sanders' illustrious career. In addition to his time served as a professional baseball player, the former Seminole recorded 53 interceptions and appeared in eight Pro Bowls."
Sanders wasn't the only pick the Falcons made that stood among all others in the league. In total, the Falcons made seven picks in the last 50 years that Edwards deemed better than any other at the spot that player was taken: Brett Favre (No. 33), Grady Jarrett (No. 137), Ray Brown (No. 148), Jamal Anderson (No. 201), Tom Pridemore (No. 236), Todd McClure (No. 237).
Jarrett and McClure are the two most recent Falcons selections on this list, and they have been among the most impactful players for the franchise over the past two decades. After signing a new contract extension ahead of the 2019 season, Jarrett earned his first Pro Bowl nod and continued to make his case as one of the best defensive tackles in the league.
"Jarrett is a dream for an NFL general manager, as the Falcons invested a fifth round pick and got a Pro Bowl caliber player in return, with his first trip to the all-star game coming last year," Edwards writes. "Jarrett has managed 21.5 sacks in 77 games (62 starts) thus far."
To see the rest of Edwards' list of best draft picks, click here.
NFL.com: Key homegrown player for each team
Before an abdominal injury cut his season short, Calvin Ridley was on pace to break 1,000 receiving yards in his second NFL season. Even more impressive, Ridley's 17 touchdown catches since 2018 are the third-most by a receiver in the league, ahead of such players like Mike Evans, Stefon Diggs and Julian Edelman.
Everyone around the NFL knows how excellent Julio Jones is, but Ridley's improvement could again give the Falcons one of the best receiver duos in the league. Matt Ryan enjoyed throwing the ball to Jones and Roddy White during the first half of his career, and if Ridley takes another step forward in his development in his third season, the Falcons could again provide their quarterback with two legitimate No. 1 receivers.
In a list of the key homegrown players for each NFL team in 2020, "Around the NFL" editor Gregg Rosenthal named Ridley as the Falcons' most important breakout option.
"Ridley is good. Can he be great? A third-year player who is turning 26 years old this season, he started putting up monster numbers after the Falcons traded Mohamed Sanu at midseason," Rosenthal writes. "An abdominal injury curtailed Ridley's run, where he had finally combined his silky smooth routes with great plays after the catch. His game speed also improved. Ridley is a solid second banana, but the Falcons would love for Julio Jones and Ridley to produce like two WR1s after the team failed to address its lack of receiver depth this offseason."
Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was similarly impressed with Ridley's play in their first season working together, and he believes there's another level the third-year receiver can reach. If that happens, Ridley may take the entire offense up a notch with him.
To see the rest of Rosenthal's list of key homegrown players, click here.
NFL.com: 10 best QBs under pressure
During the 2019 season, Matt Ryan was sacked 48 times, the most in a single season of his 12-year NFL career. Despite the pressure that Ryan faces throughout a season, he continues to perform at an extremely high level.
In fact, it's that ability to make pinpoint throws with defenders bearing down on him that makes Ryan such a special quarterback, and NFL.com writer Nick Shook highlighted that quality in his recent ranking of the best passers in the league while under presser. Using Next Gen Stats Shook determined that Ryan ranked seventh among all quarterbacks while throwing under pressure last season. Ryan had a 78.4 passer rating under pressure and a completion rate 2.9 percent higher than expected in those moments.
"We shouldn't be all that surprised," Shook writes of Ryan's place on this list. "No one in the NFL owns a higher passer rating under pressure in every season combined since 2016 than Ryan, whose mark of 87.9 puts him at the head of a top-five list that also includes Stafford, Alex Smith, Tom Brady (82.9) and Mahomes (81.2). Only Brady has thrown more touchdown passes while under pressure (30) than Ryan (27) since 2016. Ryan owns the highest passer rating that didn't occur in 2019, too, with his 104.9 mark from 2016 sitting third in the top five passer ratings under pressure since 2016. And for those who will say most of these combined numbers are inflated by that memorable run to Super Bowl LI in 2016, here's the numerical retort you weren't seeking: Ryan tied for the third most touchdown passes thrown under pressure in a single season with nine, and he did so in 2018."
With Ryan still making plays, the Falcons should always have an opportunity to boast one of the league's best offenses. Atlanta has retooled its offense a bit this offseason, but the Falcons still have plenty of weapons around their former NFL MVP.
To see the rest of Shook's ranking, click here.